In The Girl in the Painting by Australian author Tea Cooper, Michael and Elizabeth Quinn are orphaned siblings who immigrated from England to Australia in 1862. Their parents had gone on ahead to take advantage of free passage for married couples and left them with an aunt. But the aunt died before the children left and they had to go to a workhouse until time for departure. Then they found, upon arrival, that their mother had died, and the father passed away, too, before long.
The father had established himself in an area of gold seekers. But he didn’t mine gold for himself: he started a business servicing the miners, especially hauling their things around. Michael, a teenager by this time, took over the business and built it up, leaving Elizabeth in the care of a woman they’d met on the ship until he could establish a home for them..
By 1906, the Quinns were wealthy business people and philanthropists in Maitland Town. One of their outreaches was to the local orphanage, in memory of their own time as orphans. One of the orphans, Jane, has an exceptional aptitude for math. The Quinns offer to take Jane in and pay for her education in exchange for her working for their company. She eventually becomes their bookkeeper as well as taking over many of Michael’s duties.
One day Jane and Elizabeth visit a one of their buildings where they’ve invited an artist to hold an exhibition. Suddenly the ultra self-controlled Elizabeth is on the floor, shaking in terror, hat off, mumbling unintelligible words.
After a while, Elizabeth seems back to normal and insists everything is fine. But she’s not back to normal, and everything’s not fine. Odd snatches of memory and terror keep coming back to her mind.
Jane makes it her mission to find out what caused Elizabeth’s episode and discovers some unexpected long-held secrets.
This was an enjoyable book, especially in trying to figure out the mystery behind Elizabeth’s reaction to a painting. It was nice to read something set in a different time and place than a lot of historical fiction (so much of which centers around WWII). We get a picture of what immigrants were up against in those times, not only the English, but also the Chinese who were treated mainly as servants and the lowest workmen.
I loved the cover.
My only minor complaint is that the change between happy and adjusted Michael and Elizabeth and unraveling Elizabeth and brooding Michael seemed rather sudden. I guess that’s an indication that the past was a well-kept secret. But it just seems that, in a literary sense, there would have been more hints throughout the book that everything was not as we thought. I only caught one, and that was only after finishing the book and going back to reread the siblings entry onto the ship taking them to Australia. But, again, it’s a minor complaint and can be explained by the reaction to the painting that set off that aspect of the story.
I had thought this was a Christian fiction book because I bought it from a Christian site. But it wasn’t in any real sense of the word. That’s fine—I don’t restrict myself to Christian fiction. It just meant the book wasn’t what I expected at first. The orphanage Jane comes from is Catholic. Some of the Chinese religious practices are explained when Elizabeth befriends the Chinese man who works for them. But there’s not much other religious content. I would disagree with one statement that it doesn’t matter what gods people prayed to and one person’s thought that a dead relative was looking out for them from heaven.
The book is remarkably clean for modern secular fiction. Michael took the Lord’s name in vain a couple of times and a couple people said “what the hell.”
But, overall, I enjoyed the story.